Cologne - The business end of the Bundesliga is at the bottom this weekend with sides scrambling to avoid ending the year inside the bottom three.
FC Schalke 04 - 1. FC Köln
bundesliga.com takes a closer look at three of Saturday's fixtures which will make the picture clearer for some of the teams fighting for survival at the wrong end of the table (kick-off 14:30 GMT / 15:30 CET).
Schalke captain feels the Royal Blues are now showing their true colours after a slow start to life under new coach Roberto Di Matteo. Victory in the UEFA Champions League at NK Maribor in midweek, and consequent qualification for the last 16, has further boosted morale ahead of the visit of struggling Köln to the Veltins Arena fortress.
"I think we're in our strongest phase of the season," he told Sport1. "We knew from the start the coach would need time and we'd have to take small steps to start with, and even if it looked like we may have taken a step backwards, we learned from our errors and now we need to remain hungry and not let up. It's often easy to be successful, but remaining successful is the real challenge."
Schalke have won three in a row in the Bundesliga while opponents Köln have lost their last two, albeit narrowly. "We could actually have won those games," said their coach Peter Stöger. "There were phases in both matches which just happened to go badly for us. We've analysed our last game and sharpened our senses."
Matthias Lehmann returns from suspension for a game Stöger insists is not lost before it has started. "It's not impossible to get something," said the Austrian. "We want to use this week to make sure we go into the new year with a good feeling and not a great deal of pressure."
SV Werder Bremen - Hannover 96
Werder coach Viktor Skripnik says playing pretty football is not the priority as his side look to move out of the bottom three in the Bundesliga when they host a faltering Hannover this weekend. Bremen have picked up three wins from five league games since the Ukrainian was appointed, but go into Saturday's encounter still in the automatic relegation places.
"We've got to beat Hannover no matter how we do it," said Skripnik, whose side have won both their home matches under his tutelage, but suffered successive defeats away from the Weserstadion. "Where else are we to get our points if we keep losing away?"
Averting a crisis
For Hannover, failure to buck a three-game losing trend would see the storm clouds set in, something head coach Tayfun Korkut is keen to avoid. "We're not talking about a crisis just yet, but at the same time we've got to turn things around," he explained. "It's high time we picked up three points again."
Six points from the next week is the target Korkut has set for his side, and gaining half of those on Saturday would represent an ideal start to the final englische Woche of the calendar year. However, Korkut believes Bremen's need for points is far greater than the Red Shorts'. "Werder need to win to keep in touch [with the teams above them]," he said. "The pressure is a lot greater for them than it is for us."
SC Freiburg - Hamburger SV
Christian Streich reaches a milestone this weekend when he leads his Freiburg side out for the 100th time for their clash with HSV. "It's a nice round number and it means a lot to me," said the 49-year-old, who guided the club to survival in his first few months in charge before taking them to the brink of the UEFA Champions League in his first full season.
However, those heady days must seem like light years away with Freiburg now stuck inside the bottom three and preparing to face a side only two points and three places above them. "It's incredibly tight – much tighter than it was last season," said midfielder Vladimir Darida. "But the whole Bundesliga's tight. At the end of the day, though, we know that we can hold our own when we perform to our best and that's why we are preparing with the aim of winning our next game."
Relying on Rafael
Hamburg meanwhile are desperate to extend their advantage over their hosts and pull away from the drop zone, building on a run of three straight home wins and hoping to take that form with them to Freiburg. "We're heading in the right direction and now we've got to show we can get results away from home too, starting in Freiburg," said captain Rafael van der Vaart, who has been in top form of late.
The Dutchman's recent displays have not escaped the attention of coach Josef Zinnbauer. "You've got to compliment him for the way he's pulling the team together and setting the tone up front," he said. "It's enormously important for us that Rafa is on the field. With his experience and his presence, he always helps us a lot." Van der Vaart's three goals in nine appearances is a third of HSV's total this season, underlining in numbers how crucial the 31-year-old is to the cause.